We were originally going to take a few days and drive our RV to South Padre Island (Brownsville) and park out on the beach, with a side trip to Mexico. Time became a factor however, so when we learned a van full of people from Sea Breeze RV Park were doing a day trip, we decided to join them. Mr. Ed was driving but only had room for one more in his van, so we took our car too and arranged to meet them all for lunch once we got there.
It’s about a 3-3.5 hour drive from Portland, TX to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. We were told not to go to Matamoros (on the other side from Brownsville) because it was too dangerous, but now we wonder if it really is, or was it just other people’s perception. Consider the source we learned. (upon a Google search, Matamoros may indeed by unsafe and not recommended – but do your own research).
Crossing The Mexico Border
Border crossing into Mexico cost a quarter and there was no customs to go through really – a bit odd we thought. Once you cross over, you’re hit with people trying to entice you to go to their pharmacy or dentist’s office. Apparently those are the two main reasons Texans drive to Nuevo Progreso – to buy pills or get their teeth fixed at discount rates, a fraction the cost in the US.
Safe Food Does Not Come Cheap
The town isn’t much to see and our group usually eats at one of two “safe” places. I had a margarita and held the table while Rob attempted to round up the rest of the group who had lost one person, then all scattered to go look for her. The meal was okay, but I had to ask for hotter salsa and the two platters and two drinks we had cost us over $35US. This is Mexico! I was expecting maybe $10 for lunch including drinks. We only brought about $180 cash with us (didn’t want to use credit cards for safety issues, and most it’s all street vendors anyway) so lunch took a big chunk of that.
Shopping In Mexico
I bought a dolphin pendant and earrings and when the next stall over had the same thing for less money, I went back and asked for at least $2 back or a full refund and I’ll buy it from the other guy. He had told me that his father made all his items and he was the only one that would have one like it. Yeah right! Believe nothing you hear and shop around is my advice. I also bought a belt, a gift for my sister’s birthday, and a cool tin mirror for our dining room at home. Rob bought a hat and a lime squeezer (it had a similar price issue – $5 on the street, $2 IN the store).
Remember I mentioned the group ate only at the “safe” places? They only eat where they know for sure no one’s ever gotten sick, and they don’t stray off the main street or go further than the 3-4 blocks from the border where the vendors are all set up (it’s not safe either apparently). Lastly they head out of town by about 4pm and most other visitors seem to follow suit as by 6pm the vendors were tearing down and the once packed and crowded streets were now empty.
Fresh Corn and Unpasteurized Honey
I was hungry so I bought a corn on the cob (with hot pepper sprinkled on it) from a street vendor cooking it on the corner. Rob bought some honey that actually had bits of the honeycomb still in it – also from a street vendor. Guess what – I ate the corn and it was delicious – AND I didn’t get sick or die! The honey is also fab, BTW, no label, just honey.
Rob Crosses Border 4 Times
So here’s where the story get interesting. We were almost out of cash and wanted to stay and eat dinner so we walked back to the square by the border crossing, but the only ATM in town was not working (probably out of money). We were told there is another one just on the other side, so Rob said he’d walk over and back to get some cash. I figured he’d be like 10 minutes.
Coming up on 30 minutes I was thinking about how to do this if he wasn’t allowed to come back in again. We hadn’t thought of that, we had no way to communicate (he had not phone with him) and the sun was setting fast. I did not want to be sitting there by myself after dark with my large expensive (=target) camera and backpack, not to mention we still had to pick up the mirror 2.5 blocks back into town.
I was just formulating a plan in my head of how I could rush back and get the mirror, then somehow get it and the 20 lb backpack across the border by myself, when finally Rob reappeared. He ended up driving a few miles back to a gas station to get money. You’d think they’d want to make it a little easier to get and spend money in this place!
So at about 6pm we were going back into town while all the other visitors were streaming out. We’d had chips and salsa at a little restaurant, called Ay Jalisco, earlier and wanted to go back there to eat dinner. We picked up the mirror on the way in case the store closed too.
Ay Jalisco Restaurant in Nuevo Mexico
Ay Jalisco was great – all locals eating there now and a three man band played on the stage. Dinner was less expensive than lunch and way more authentic Mexican food. We’re in Mexico for crying out loud – should be the real thing everywhere. I felt the other place we ate lunch at caters so much to the 70+ snow bird crowd that it is over Americanized for my tastes. I prefer to eat there the locals do, where I can’t read the menu and just point at what the person next to you is having and say “quiero eso” meaning “I want that”. Just avoid lettuce and anything washed with a skin on and you’ll be fine. The travelers rule is: boil it, peel it or leave it!
We left about 7:30pm or so and there wasn’t a single other Caucasian in sight by that time. We walked the three blocks and crossed the border safely just fine – paying our quarter to get out again. So our Nuevo Progreso experience was okay but I think knowing the sources now maybe next year we’ll see if the crime is down in Matamoros and take a chance there. There more of a real town and not just one that sprang up to sell tourists dentistry and trinkets.
Travel Tips For Traveling in Third World Countries
I thought I’d write a little side bar of my own personal tips for traveling in foreign or third world countries.
- by all means GO to these places! do not be afraid of places different than your own country. Even if the country you visit is very poor, or not developed – it does not mean it is unsafe. All it means is that it’s different, that’s all.
- in Mexico there are wonderful things to find and experience. I personally love the Spanish language and am working on learning more of it so I can converse with people here and in South America when I return there also. Make an effort to learn at least a few words before you travel to a foreign country. Get a pocket dictionary or iPhone translator app, they will help immensely. In many tourist areas people speak enough English to get by, especially in restaurants, etc. But I find that any time you make an effort to speak their language the people will be much more willing to help you and often puts a smile on their face cause you’ve just murdered a word, but they truly appreciate the effort. We learned about 6-8 Thai phrases when we went there and it always brought smiles, or laughter in some cases, to their faces.
- experience the local food! We often eat from street vendors or find places where the tourists DON’T go to eat. We’ll ask a local for a recommended place to eat and we’re almost never disappointed. Be cautious about street vendors and if it looks unclean or unsanitary, use common sense and don’t eat it. If it has tap water in it or on it also use caution (see not below). But if it looks and smells good, and seems sanitary – it probably tastes fantastic so go ahead and try it!
- find local artisans and craftsmen: Mexico is abundant with little shops and street stalls selling all kinds of wares. Go further afield from the tourist areas and find a local market, you may be pleasantly surprised. I found a great silversmith in this town and bought a couple things. His prices were reasonable, and his quality was exceptional. Much better than the junk you find for $1 in the busy areas.
- don’t drink the tap water, always boil it or get bottled
- that also means no ice or Popsicle unless you know it was from clean bottled water or bagged ice
- avoid things washed in water like salad, and not cooked or peeled
- don’t brush your teeth with tap water either, use a little bottled in a glass
- avoid looking like a victim – walk with your eyes up and make eye contact with people
- take off all or any flashy jewelry that will call attention to you and make you a target
- carry your purse over one shoulder and under a jacket if you are wearing one
- men put your wallet in your front pocket, it’s harder to pick that way
- stay in a group or with someone if possible
- use a money belt if you really want – I never have
- be alert to your surroundings and what’s going on around you
- be wary of people asking about you, your camera or belongings, where you’re from, where you’re staying, are you alone, etc. Don’t give them any info and even if you are alone don’t ever say so. Say your friend is in the nearest shop and you have to go meet him/her and leave. If you feel followed call police.
- do go off the tourist path but follow the rules above and use common sense (no dark alleys)
- do talk to the local people, they’re just foreign and likely poor – not criminals
- do bargain with vendors but show compassion – the lady you bargain down for that “good deal” likely only makes a few cents on it. So do you really need the extra couple bucks you saved more than she does?
- carry small pocket change, there’s always desperate people asking for help
- the kid asking for money is really cute but give him some change and watch 10 more just like him magically appear from mid air.
I’m sure that’s not all the travel tips for traveling in third world countries, but those are some of the rules I follow and I’ve never had any problems in any of the places I’ve visited including: Peru, New York City, New Orleans (one of the most unsafe cities in the US), and Asia.
Our day trip to Nuevo Progresso Mexico was very low key. We had a couple of meals, one that we thought was overpriced but “safe” while the other was authentic Mexican and thoroughly enjoyed. Next time, we’ll go by ourselves, and to another town in Mexico. All in all, our border crossing into Mexico was a fun filled day.
Be safe and happy travels!